President Obama, who has suffered relatively few setbacks in the Democratic-controlled Congress, has allowed one key administration bill -- the $96.7 billion supplemental appropriation for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (HR 2346) -- to become a Christmas tree for other controversial "must-pass" provisions, including $108 billion for the International Monetary Fund and language keeping detainee torture photos secret.
The emergence of opposition from left and right to the expanded legislation has inspired anti-war forces to try to hand Obama his first major defeat.
In one of the ironies of the legislative process, the threat of Republicans to vote en masse against the measure has empowered the liberal wing of the House Democratic caucus, giving it potential veto power over the legislation.
A number of war critics in the blogosphere including Jane Hamsher at firedoglake.com ; buhdydharma on Dailykos.com; and Jason Rosenbaum at theseminel.com, think there is a chance to actually defeat the war-funding bill.
Other anti-war advocates in Congress privately warn that they are likely to be outmaneuvered, and that many in their ranks are not willing to deal Obama a major legislative defeat.
The legislation itself has had a short and volatile history. In the first major blow to the President, majorities in both the House and Senate last month used the bill to voice adamant opposition to plans to close the notorious Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, "Gitmo" or Guantanamo for short, by cutting the money needed to pay for the costs of closure. The action denied Obama the ability to fulfill one of his core campaign promises.
The measure appeared headed to the President's desk for signature after it was passed by the House, 368 to 60, on May 14, with only 51 Democrats and nine Republicans voting 'no', and sent to the Senate
In late May, however, the Senate added two separate provisions, both of which have provoked a firestorm of opposition in the House. The House leadership had planned a vote on the measure last Friday, June 5, but pulled the bill when it became clear that it could be defeated.
The first new and controversial provision would authorizes $108 billion in U.S.-backed loans to be distributed by the International Monetary Fund. This money is a high priority for the President, who made the loan commitment at the April 2 Group of 20 "G-20" meeting in London -- attended by leaders of major industrialized and developing economies -- in an attempt to demonstrate U.S. support for countries struggling to stay financially afloat in the global recession.
House Republican leaders, fully aware that rejection of the IMF money would be a major setback for Obama, are calling on all GOP members to oppose the measure if it includes the IMF money.
House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio) told colleagues: "Just think about this a moment. We're going to provide the International Monetary Fund $108 billion that we don't have. So we're going to borrow $108 billion from the Chinese, we're going to give it to the IMF, and we're going to expect our kids and grandkids to pay for it. Americans aren't buying this. And I tell you what: Republicans in the House aren't going to buy it, either."
Further complicating the IMF issue is the emergence of a block of 41 House Democrats led by Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.) who wrote a May 21 letter to top Democrats on the Appropriations Committee seeking changes in the IMF sections of the bill which would require the IMF a) to back off from certain austerity requirements imposed on poor countries; b) to provide more access and transparency in the loan process; and c) to use $5 billion for grants and debt relief instead of for loans. It is not clear how many of these 41 House Democrats are prepared to vote against the legislation which has not been changed to accommodate their demands.
The problems don't stop there.
The Senate, with the backing of the Obama administration, has also added an amendment that would allow the administration to keep secret photographs of U.S. torture and mistreatment of detainees and prisoners, allowing the Department of Defense to exempt such photos from provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who sponsored the Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act, said the language specifically addresses a FOIA suit filed by the ACLU for the pictures: the Lieberman amendment will "authorize the Secretary of Defense, after consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to certify to the President that the disclosure of photographs like the ones at issue in the ACLU lawsuit would endanger the lives of our citizens or members of the Armed Forces or civilian employees of the United States government deployed abroad. The certification would last five year and could be renewed by the Secretary of Defense if the threat to American personnel continues."
The result is that HR 2346 -- combining the Iraq-Afghan war supplemental with the IMF loan money and with the detainee-photos secrecy provisions -- now faces four separate sources of opposition: First, all 178 Republican members; Second, liberal/progressive Democrats critical of the forced austerity policies of the IMF; Third, the 51 Democrats and 9 Republicans who voted against the Afghan-Iraq supplemental on May 14, before the Senate made its additions; and Fourth, members, mostly Democrats, adamantly opposed to the FOIA photo provisions.
To be certain of passage, the administration and House Democratic leaders need to be sure of 218 votes, and, without major surgery to the legislation, prospects of achieving that goal are currently dim.
According to Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, there are two choices available to those seeking passage of the war supplemental: take out the IMF funding, or take out the anti-FOIA Lieberman amendment: "You can have the war and the IMF, or the war and the pictures," Frank told Jane Hamsher.
Frank, an anti-war Democrat who opposed the war supplemental on May 14, strongly supports the IMF provisions and will back the measure if the IMF funding stays in. He is strongly opposed, however, to the FOIA amendment, and said he has warned the Obama administration that there are so many House members opposed to the Lieberman provision that "they have no chance of passing this if the pictures are in it... There are many Democrats who are very upset about that."
If the administration and House leadership adopt the Frank strategy and eliminate the Lieberman FOIA amendment, they will still face a major hurdle.
Keeping the IMF provision in raises the likelihood that all the votes for the measure will have to be provided by Democrats. There are 256 Democrats, meaning that proponents of the bill can only afford to lose 38 Democratic votes. A total of 51 Democrats, however, voted against the measure on May 14, and another 18 voiced concerns about the practices of the IMF, for a total of 69 potential no votes -- 31 of whom would have to be persuaded to vote yes. In addition, there is the danger for the administration that some members of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition - members representing conservative swing districts - may feel under pressure to vote no because of local opposition to foreign aid spending and to the IMF.
Some opponents of the war, including Frank and George Miller (D-Calif.) have indicated that they are prepared to support the administration and to back the bill.
The Democratic whip operation will be frantically counting Democratic votes this week to see what changes, if any, can produce a majority. One factor working in Obama's favor is that many of the critics of war spending are members of the Congressional Black Caucus and they are likely to be reluctant to hand Obama a serious defeat at this early stage of his presidency.
Conversely, if that strategy for getting to a majority fails, the administration will be tempted to drop the IMF money to get at least 140 Republican House votes. Despite their desire to embarrass the president, House Republicans, without the excuse of the IMF money, would be under intense pressure to vote for a bill providing money for American troops under fire in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A key Senate aide noted that the measure will pass in one form or another "only with great difficulty. Once Obama gets back [from overseas] he may need to be the closer and seal the deal." Supporters of the bill "lose Democratic votes on the money for Afghanistan and sure as hell won't pick up Republican votes because of the IMF money, and if this language relating to
detainee photo's isn't stripped out, they may lose a handful of more Democratic votes as well."
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